Skip to main content

Texas Democrats' Circular Firing Squad

Some Texas Democrats, stung by the results of last month's elections and left with only a short list of candidates who might make a strong statewide ticket four years from now, are circling the party headquarters in a bid to replace Molly Beth Malcolm as chairwoman of the party.

Some Texas Democrats, stung by the results of last month's elections and left with only a short list of candidates who might make a strong statewide ticket four years from now, are circling the party headquarters in a bid to replace Molly Beth Malcolm as chairwoman of the party.

She says she wants to stay in the job and notes that the party is in better financial shape than it has been in years. The people seeking change, her supporters say, are just having a natural reaction to the election results and ought to be blaming some of the candidates and campaigns that were calling the shots instead of going after the party chair.

But there are others in the party–they were gathering signatures for a petition bringing this to a head as we went to deadline–who want fresh blood at the party headquarters. Their version: The Democrats need someone who'll build up the grassroots, recruit local and regional candidates and build the infrastructure so that the party doesn't get its tail kicked for the third time in a row in the statewide elections four years from now.

If it turns out to be a whole dance, this will be a two-step. First, the Democrats who want a change at the top have to get that issue on the agenda, effectively telling Malcolm she has lost the support of the State Democratic Executive Committee. If they don't get enough signatures to oust her, she can claim continued support and try to put Humpty Dumpty together again.

It would take a two-thirds vote of the SDEC to knock Malcolm off, setting up a kind of circular firing squad where each member would have to choose a side and hope to end up with the winners.

And if Malcolm were to step down or get knocked off, it would potentially open another can of worms–who gets the job? Nobody but Malcolm ran for the job last time. But now that the Democrats are kicking this around, there's a list of potential candidates that includes San Antonio investor and businessman Lukin Gilliland, an SDEC member and former Senate candidate Mary Moore of College Station, and Austin businessman Hilbert Ocañas. Moore has sent a letter to members of the SDEC seeking their support, and Ocañas says he's not interested. Gilliland has supported Malcolm in the past and gets mentioned more as a draft candidate than as someone seeking the job.

You can get the gist of the gripes if you read Moore's letter to the other members of the SDEC. "The Texas Democratic Party has deteriorated over the last three election cycles. The party is not providing the kind of services or strategy or support that our county parties and local candidates need and deserve." Among other things, she says the party should "embrace our national Democratic leaders"–something most statewide Democratic candidates are loath to do–in order to raise money to support local Democratic efforts. Moore asks for votes and says the party has to change right away.

In response to that and to moves by others to change the management, Malcolm says quite emphatically that she's not going anywhere. She was reelected unanimously at the state convention in El Paso last summer and says–as she has for some time–that she won't seek a fourth term to the office she first won in 1998. She says that bit of info frees other candidates to start running for the June 2004 election and says the next chair "should be elected by the 8,000 delegates and not by a little group of people who aren't happy with the [November] election results."

She says she wants to rebuild the party, too, and says efforts to boot her miss the point: "What happened here, they might want to notice, is the same thing that happened all over the country... It would be nice if we could stop fighting each other and start fighting the Republicans."

Employment Insurance

Deputy Insurance Commissioner Karina Casari will leave that post to manage legislative issues for Lt. Gov.-elect David Dewhurst. That's a homecoming of sorts for Casari, who was chief of staff to former Sen. David Sibley, R-Waco, before the insurance gig came along, and it puts another experienced Senate hand on Dewhurst's team.

Casari was one of the leading candidates to take over the Texas Department of Insurance should the current commissioner, Jose Montemayor, leave. His term expires at the beginning of February, and Gov. Rick Perry has ducked the opportunity to say he'll reappoint Montemayor.

There's a timing issue here: Someone appointed during a legislative session has to win Senate approval during that same session. And there's a political issue here: Insurance is expected to be one of the first issues on the menu of the legislative session, and an appointment and confirmation could easily get tangled up in trades over regulation of the insurance business.

Another problem under quiet consideration by the Perry camp is how to replace a prominent Latino who was one of the governor's high profile early appointees. Montemayor, meanwhile, is telling reporters and others he'd like to come back. That poses a question the governor hasn't answered: Is Montemayor going to run the agency after the insurance regulations are redone?

Insurance will be getting emergency attention from the Legislature during the session next month, a designation that allows lawmakers to consider the issue during the 60-day dead zone that begins each legislative session (lawmakers aren't allowed to consider legislation during that period unless it's got the "emergency" label).

Perry's list of insurance reforms has some of the same features proposed earlier by legislators and during his and other campaigns earlier this year. It's one of those odd political moments when there is not much rhetorical distance between the two parties. Perry wants insurance companies to stop using credit histories to decide whether to insure people, but leaves an opening if the companies can prove there is a direct correlation between the two. He wants the state to have more rate oversight on homeowners insurance, including the ability to order across-the-board rate freezes. He wants insurers to have more freedom to offer different kinds of policies. They call them forms, but the idea is that people should be able to buy different levels of insurance–a good, better, best array–instead of forcing companies to offer only one or two options. And he's got mold in there, saying the state ought to license and regulate the people who spot the mold in houses and who take it out.

High Stakes Voting

Gov. Perry has said he'll put medical malpractice insurance in that same declaration, allowing him to push the hottest tort reform issue of the moment early in the session, before other issues dominate attention. Now there's a proposal under consideration to attach a constitutional amendment to medical malpractice to address a problem with financial caps on punitive, or non-economic, damage awards. The courts say you can't take away punitive damages without offering something in return, because it limits the interest of lawyers who might take a person's case, and that lowered interest might hinder a person's access to the courts. If the lawyers won't take the case because of the state's cap, the reasoning goes, then the state has limited the litigant's access to the courts.

One set of proposals would trade the caps for mandatory insurance carried by doctors and hospitals. But another would change the constitution to allow the caps without a quid pro quo.

That raises interesting questions about handing what has really been a fight between trial lawyers and some business to the general public for perusal. Would Texas voters go to the polls to limit the amount of money awarded to people who were harmed by mistakes made by doctors and other health care providers? If voters were treated to commercials featuring victims, would they still be for tort reform, or would they do what juries often do, telling the doctors to pay up. Flip the question: If Texans would vote to protect docs and hospitals and others from unjustifiably high awards, would that add fuel to the tort reform flames in the state?

New Brakes

It looks like the "stopper" function in the Legislature could begin to move to the Senate from the House starting next month.

If you squint at the array of (relatively mild) complaints against the current management of the lower chamber, one common thread is a sense from Republicans that they couldn't get their bills to move down the legislative river. That sentiment was behind the decision to kill the House's bill analysis operation a couple of weeks ago. That office was set up to do the legal analyses of legislation in the House, after a couple of sessions where sloppy work on those documents allowed opponents of bills to kill legislation on the basis of technical mistakes instead of content. The committee clerks (and by extension, the chairmen) were stripped of the duty and a new office was set up where all of the analyses were done by a central staff. Whether that was actually a bottleneck or not, it had the appearance of one to members who were having trouble with their bills.

Put it this way: Doing away with it decentralizes the blame when something gets hung up; instead of blaming the speaker or one of his employees for delays, members will go back to the old system of blaming committee chairs for the problems.

And to return to the original point, it fits an overall theme of making legislation pass through the House a little easier. That's a switch from the last several sessions.

Under Lt. Gov. Bill Hobby, the Senate became the rocky passage on the legislative river. Bills that sailed through the House would stall in the Senate, and much of what passed the Senate went through the lower chamber without a nick. Under Lt. Gov. Bob Bullock, the Senate became an efficiency machine. Senators still had some floor debates, but unanimous votes on major legislation became commonplace, and lobbyists and others began to look to Speaker Pete Laney's House for help in killing bills, slowing them down, and making big changes to them. Laney is a leading advocate of the theory that the system is designed to kill bills–to dampen lawmakers' ability to put new laws in place. Bullock wanted to keep things moving along–and now, apparently, the Republicans about to take control in the House want to follow the Bullock method.

While some state representatives have been wanting to speed things up and to remove bottlenecks, there is some talk in the Senate of becoming the "responsible" chamber, where hot ideas cool off a little bit before they go into law. Some have grown tired of the Senate's reputation for passing almost anything, passing it in a hurry, and passing it with a vote of 31-0.

Golden Oldie

You might remember that, two years ago, the Texas Department of Economic Development was in serious trouble, seemed to have no friends in government, and seemed destined for the chopping block when lawmakers convened in January 2001.

They ended the session more or less out of the crisis state (but still wobbly) and with their biggest function chopped out and buried in other agencies better able to deal with job training money. They remained unpopular, however, and lawmakers said they'd bring them back for more whipping in January 2003. This time, the agency might not survive, but its functions will.

You might also remember that, two years ago, Gov. Rick Perry said he wouldn't mind adding employees to his office–recently a political minefield for governors–if it meant making economic development a function of the governor's office as it is in other states. Guess what? That's the proposal on the table, and it actually has some support this time. It's not even because TDED is unpopular: It's because the state is having a recession, companies are looking (like Toyota, which San Antonio is courting for a manufacturing plant) and because those companies want to talk to the chief. That could all combine to put the TDED board out of business, and put Perry in the eco devo business.

Pay as You Go

The Texas Association of Business was first out of the gate with budget plans, listing a number of ways to trim the gaping difference between what the state expects current programs to cost and what budgeteers expect the state to collect in revenue. We outlined that a few weeks ago, and the group has promised to come back with a list of proposed cuts in the current budget to match the money-raising and money-saving ideas they already proposed. That group wanted a list of things to do before there's any talk of a really serious tax bill. They offered some ways to find money without requiring new taxes. And the cuts will be an attempt to show why Texas doesn't need all that money, anyway.

The Center for Public Policy Priorities is pushing another list, with the idea that the state can raise revenues with less pain than it can cut services (a detailed version of their Texas Revenue Primer is available at

CPPP's director, former district judge Scott McCown, admits that each of the proposed taxes would potentially zing someone powerful. Put another way, there's a built-in constituency to oppose almost any kind of tax increase. If you try to put sales taxes on newspapers, for instance, all the publishers show up. If you talk about taxing home sales, you get to see just how many Texans make their livings in real estate. CPPP is steering clear of endorsing a particular tax (or a particular fight), characterizing the list as an array of options. And their initial pitch isn't different–at least on the macro level–from what business groups have proposed.

First, McCown says, lawmakers ought to look for cuts and efficiencies. Next, they ought to use some or all of the money they've already collected from taxpayers by getting into the Rainy Day fund. Raising taxes would be the next option. The differences are in the details, down there on the micro level. CPPP wants to preserve the state's services for the sick and the poor, and is resistant to the idea of balancing the budget with cuts to Medicaid or to the Children's Health Insurance Program. Those programs are high on budgeteers' lists because the state spends so much money there.

One new argument from the advocates is designed for the conservatives: McCown talks about the money spent on medical services for the poor in terms of economic development instead of as entitlements. The federal money coming into Texas in the form of matching funds for state programs goes to Texas hospitals and doctors and other health care providers–into the economy–and, he says, it would be a shame to give up the business and jobs it creates. Every dollar cut from state Medicaid spending, he says, would result in $2.50 less being spent in the Texas economy on medical services.

They also try to offer some cover for Republicans working on the budget. McCown says 23 states raised taxes for the 2003 fiscal year, and that 13 of them had Republican governors.

The sales tax proposal would increase revenue while cutting rates, since it would extend that tax to things that aren't currently taxed. McCown says that shift could make the tax less regressive, since wealthier people use some of the newly taxed services more than the poor.

The group skipped the income tax option, though they've freely suggested it before. Even if you think it's a good idea, there are problems: It would take time to win voter approval to end the state constitutional ban on income taxes, and more time still to start collecting them. If everything sailed through–that's an IF of almost mythically large proportion–money from a state income tax wouldn't be available in time to balance this budget. As a political matter, CPPP says, voters won't go for an income tax until the current tax system has been squeezed dry.

This gang doesn't want to leverage the state's tobacco settlement to balance the budget. Other states have borrowed against future tobacco income to get money now, and TAB and others like that one. CPPP says that would only bring in 41 cents on the dollar–not enough to make financial sense. TAB's Bill Hammond says it would bring in 53 or 54 cents on the dollar, enough to make it worth study. Hammond says other things ought to happen well before Texas talks about a tax increase and he's wary of giving the government new ways to bring in money from taxpayers. "The economic downturn is temporary, but new taxes are forever," he says.

Legislative Notes

Speaker-presumptive Tom Craddick says he'd like to see changes in campaign ethics laws that make financial disclosures easier to understand–both for the people who fill them out and the people who read them to find out what's going on in the world of political money.

• Craddick says there will probably be a checkpoint in the bill analysis system to make sure committee clerks don't make bill-killing mistakes. Such mistakes were part of the reason bill analysis was moved to a central office. Craddick killed that office, but says there'll be safeguards in place to catch boo-boos. He contends few bills had such problems under the old system he's returning to, but that some committees and some clerks were better than others.

• The House will probably have a new committee set up to look at the health care costs marbled through the state budget in dozens of different agencies. That, along with a panel looking for duplication of services, will be able to feed any savings they find back to the budget-writers.

• Craddick is talking about an idea that can only be appreciated if you have to sit through long legislative committee meetings: He wants committees to hear bills in the order they're posted, with only minor exceptions. He wants to make things more predictable for people who come to testify.

• Word from the comptroller's office is that the much-anticipated revenue estimate won't be unveiled until after the first of the year. That's the official pronouncement of how much money Carole Keeton Rylander will have to spend over the next two years. The official, set-in-stone estimate will come out toward the end of the session, but this one is the starting place and will give people a firm number to plug in when they're talking about the difference between money coming in and money going out. Estimates of that difference currently range from $5 billion to $12 billion.

• Even people who work in their robes have celebrities. Case in point: U.S. Supreme Court Justice Sandra Day O'Connor will swear in five Texas Supreme Court Justices on January 6. She'll give the oath to Chief Justice Tom Phillips and to Justices Wallace Jefferson, Michael Schneider, Steven Wayne Smith and Dale Wainwright.

• Department of Corrections: We misspelled Christi Craddick's name here last week. It's correct in the previous sentence. Sorry, sorry, sorry.

More Political People, More Moves

Laura Smith, up to now the director of research for Lt. Gov. Bill Ratliff, has moved to the Texas A&M University System Health Sciences Center, where she'll be vice president of government relations... Damon Withrow, who also works for Ratliff, will be chief of staff to Sen. Tommy Williams, R-The Woodlands, when Williams is sworn in next month...

Connie Barron leaves the Texas Medical Association after about a decade, seeking a complete change of pace. Instead of lobbying, she'll do some consulting for TMA during the legislative session and enjoy the quiet. That's been in the works for a while, but the trade group for doctors hasn't named a replacement...

Jeff Judson, director of the Texas Public Policy Foundation, will leave at the end of the year to work in an unspecified job in the private sector. No replacement has been named, but the board is expected to act soon. One name in the hat: Brooke Rollins, who until recently worked for Gov. Perry's policy department... Brian Jammer, most recently with the Texas Credit Union League, will join the government relations staff at the University of Texas System at the first of the year...

Adrienne McFarland, who's been making Sen. Rodney Ellis' office work for some time now, is leaving to become one of the honchos administering recreational sports programs at the University of Texas at Austin... Chuck Mains, who worked for Reps. Tracy King of Uvalde and Manny Najera of El Paso (both of whom lost reelection bids this year) moves to the Senate, where he'll work for Houston Democrat Mario Gallegos...

The Texas Farm Bureau changed its hat at its annual meeting in Corpus Christi, electing Kenneth Dierschke of Tom Green County as its new president. He narrowly beat the incumbent, Donald Patman, who was elected two years ago. The new honcho has been on the board for six years and became vice president when Patman became president.

Political People and Their Moves

J.P. Urrabazo leaves Sen. Mario Gallegos, D-Houston, where he was chief of staff for the last two years, to lobby for CenterPoint Energy, probably best described as the enterprise formerly known as Houston Lighting & Power. It's the regulated electric company among Reliant's affiliates. Bobby Garza will move into Urrabazo's spot, and you can add Julie Franks, formerly with Sen. David Cain, D-Dallas, to Gallegos' office...

Lara Laneri Keel moves from the Texas Association of Business, where she lobbied and worked on health care issues, to the lobby shop that resulted when Bill Messer, Mike Toomey and Ellen Williams merged their practices. Toomey left to be Gov. Rick Perry's chief of staff right after the merger was announced...

Laura McPartland Matz is leaving Stewart Title after five years to join the Thompson & Knight law firm's Austin office. The firm is beefing up its lobby practice; Victor Alcorta–former policy director for Gov. Rick Perry–moved to the firm earlier this year. Matz isn't a lawyer. Alcorta is. Both will lobby... Lawrence Collins, former staff director of the House Appropriations Committee, is back in Austin after a stint in Marfa working on a project with a non-profit. He'll team up with lobbyist Anthony Haley on behalf of some of Haley's clients while developing his own practice...

The Texas Farm Bureau gave its Meritorious Service Award this year to U.S. Rep. Charlie Stenholm, D-Abilene, for his work on federal ag issues affecting Texas. That's their highest honor... Rodney Ahart joins the American Cancer Society's Austin office as a lobbyist. He'd been working for Rep. Dawnna Dukes, D-Austin...

Will Newton leaves the Texas Restaurant Association for the comptroller's office, where he'll work as a legislative liaison. Same landing spot, different source: Arturo Lopez, who now works for Rep. Pete Gallego, D-Alpine, is moving to the comptroller's office for a legislative job... Add Jay Kimbrough to the executive offices of Attorney General Greg Abbott. He'll be the deputy for criminal justice. Kimbrough was, until now, the criminal justice wizard in the governor's office. He's been director of the Texas Commission on Alcohol & Drug Abuse, and was a county official before that.

Quotes of the Week

What U.S. Sen. Trent Lott, R-Mississippi, said at the retirement party for U.S. Sen. Strom Thurmond, R-South Carolina, who ran against Harry Truman in 1948 on the segregationist Dixiecrat ticket: "I want to say this about my state: When Strom Thurmond ran for president, we voted for him. We're proud of it. And if the rest of the country had followed our lead, we wouldn't have had all these problems over all these years, either."

Speaker-presumptive Tom Craddick, on proposals from the University of Texas to let state-owned colleges set their own prices, quoted in the Austin American Statesman: "They ought to have the right to set the tuition for their individual campuses and programs."

Sen. Steve Ogden, R-Bryan, on the same subject in the Houston Chronicle: "I'm opposed to the idea that our public institutions of higher education are really quasi-private and should charge what the traffic will bear. They're public schools and they ought to be affordable."

Scott McCown, director of the Center for Public Policy Priorities, on why his group includes a particular source of money on its list of things the state might do before cutting services next year: "You raise the cigarette tax, because smokers are unpopular people."

Debbie Roberts, programs director at the Texas Department of Criminal Justice, on rehabilitation, in the Houston Chronicle: "If you have an offender who is illiterate and has a substance abuse addiction, if all he does is learn to read, when he gets out you are going to have an addict who is literate. By the same token, if all he gets is treatment for his addiction, then you have a former addict who is illiterate."

Rep. Harold Dutton, D-Houston, telling the Houston Chronicle why he didn't sign off on a legislative report that lists possible solutions for public school finance, but makes no recommendation: "If it was designed to come up with a remedy, we certainly didn't do that... They should have put it on real soft paper and put it on a roll. Then it would have been useful.

Texas Weekly: Volume 19, Issue 25, 16 December 2002. Ross Ramsey, Editor. George Phenix, Publisher. Copyright 2002 by Printing Production Systems, Inc. All Rights Reserved. Reproduction in whole or in part without written permission from the publisher is prohibited. One-year online subscription: $250. For information about your subscription, call (800) 611-4980 or email biz@ For news, email ramsey@, or call (512) 288-6598.

Texans need truth. Help us report it.

Support independent Texas news

Become a member. Join today.

Donate now

Explore related story topics

Health care Medicaid